As nations prepare for war, they must also prepare the weapons of warfare. These days, and really since airplanes became reliable enough to be used in war, manufacturers have been building better and better airplanes for war. The Wright brothers, Wilber and Orville made the first airplane, which they successfully flew in 1903. Planes were first used in war in 1911, but it was in World War I, 1914-1918, that their use became commonplace. Since then, we have seen an avalanche of progress is the types and capabilities of planes.
For me, there is no greater warplane than the B-17, but I suppose I am a bit biased because my dad served on a B-17 during World War II. That mkes me very partial to the B-17. It really was a Flying Fortress, and it was that fortress that brought my dad back home. In my book, that makes it the greatest plane ever.
During World War II, the United States had the B-17, otherwise known as the Flying Fortress…among other planes, of course. There was a plane used by Britain, that would have been the similar, to a degree to the abilities to the B-17. The Lancaster was a heavy bomber “workhorse” of a plane. When compared to the B-17, it could carry a heavier payload and fly further than the B-17. The B-17 had higher flight ceiling and better defensive firepower. Speed was about even. Those things are important, but when it came to survivability, the B-17 was the better plane in that it was far easier to bail out of than the Lancaster, meaning that the crew of a plane that was going down would really hope it was a B-17. Only 15% of shot down crewmen survived from the Lancaster, while it was around 50% for B-17s. The Lancaster bomber had only one emergency exit…at the front of the aircraft, as opposed to four (counting the bomb bays) for the B-17.
Both of these planes were amazing weapons of war. They were just developed, designed, and built by different companies, and different countries. They served somewhat different purposes, but they were both designed to end the murderous Axis of Evil nations, of which Hitler’s Third Reich and Japan’s evil empire were a huge part. These planes were different, but both were on the side of good and not evil. I think that I am just glad they were on the same side of the war.
After the Wright brothers discovered a way to make a plane fly, all bets were off as to where the future would take us. It didn’t take very long to find out either. By 1907, a man named Paul Cornu came up with an entirely different type of aircraft, and built the Cornu Helicopter. As most of us know these days, the helicopter is a rotary-wing aircraft that creates its own lift. The Cornu helicopter was an experimental helicopter that was built in France. The craft had an open framework, that obviously didn’t provide much protection from the elements, and so was somewhat limited in when it could fly, but then there are still times when a helicopter can’t fly, so I guess that not much has changed in that respect.
Cornu was a bicycle maker, and so he built his craft around a curved steel tube that carried a rotor at either end, and the engine and pilot in the middle. Power was transmitted to the rotors by a drive belt that linked both rotors and spun them in opposite directions. Control was to be provided by cables that could alter the pitch of the rotor blades, and by steerable vanes at either end of the machine intended to direct the down wash of the rotors. On November 13, 1907, the helicopter was ready for its test flight. The Cornu helicopter is reported to have made a number of short hops, rising perhaps 5–7 feet into the air and staying aloft for something less than one minute…just long enough for Cornu to learn that the control systems he had designed were ineffective. He abandoned the machine soon thereafter. I find it sad to think that, while the design wasn’t going to work in it’s present form, it was certainly not something to give upon. I’m reminded of the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed…try, try again.” Perhaps, if Paul Cornu had kept trying, he could have succeeded.
Modern engineering analyses have demonstrated that the Cornu helicopter could not have been capable of sustained flight. The design was flawed, nevertheless, in order to commemorate the centenary of his achievement, a replica of the helicopter was constructed by the École supérieure des techniques aéronautiques et de construction automobile (ESTACA) and presented to the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace where it was placed on display on December 15, 2007. Another replica was also built. This one by the Hubschraubermuseum Bückeburg (Helicopter Museum of Bückeburg) to pay homage to the merits of Paul Cornu. It has been on display there since November 13, 2007. Though its fight was short, it did fly, after all.
Airplanes are able to do so much more and travel so much further these days than they were in World War II. Back then, planes had to be based in nations closer to the fighting, because bomb runs could not be done from US shores…too much distance. Nevertheless, it wasn’t because no one had considered such a possibility. On September 28, 1942, General Henry “Hap” Arnold ordered the highest priority be given to the development of two exceptional aircraft. They were the B-35 Flying Wing and the B-36 Peacemaker, and they were intended for bombing runs from bases in the United States to targets in Europe. It could have potentially changed the way the war was fought…had everything worked out as planned.
General Arnold was a man of distinction from the beginning of his career. Not only was he one of the first pilots in the US Signal Corps, but he was taught to fly by none other than one of the Wright brothers. During World War I, Arnold was director of aviation training for the Army. Between World War I and World War II, he was a proponent of the controversial military philosophy that emphasized strategic bombing, eliminating the need for the use of ground forces altogether. It was a noble idea, and could have potentially saved many lives, although I don’t know how feasible it really is. I think there are times when ground forces are the only way to go, but I have never fought in a war, so I could be wrong on that thought.
When the United States entered into World War II, the Army Air Forces had become an increasingly distinct military service. General Arnold became its first chief. Along with this honor came the opportunity of a seat with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Initially this was intended to boost his status to that of his counterpart in Britain, but it also increased the stature and independence of the Army Air Forces. General Arnold was able to form alliances with British RAF allies who also favored the use of strategic bombing in lieu of ground-force operations.
In 1942, Arnold gave the highest priority to the development of two extra long-distance transatlantic planes that would prove most useful to his strategic bombing game plan, the B-35 Flying Wing and the B-36 Peacemaker transatlantic bombers. The B-35 had been first proposed in early 1941, intended for use in defending an invaded Britain. But the tailless design was so radical that it was viewed as…maybe not safe, so the plane was put on the back burner. When I look at the plane, I can see how it might look unsafe, and really not flight worthy.
The plans for the B-35 were finally revived because of advantages the plane afforded over the B-36 bombing range in relation to gross weight, for example. Fifteen B-35 planes were ordered for construction, but the first did not take flight until 1946, after World War II had ended. Designs for the B-36 were also developed early in 1941, on the assumption that the United States would inevitably be drawn into the war and it would need a bomber that could reach Europe from bases in America. It was to be a massive plane…162 feet long with a 230 foot wingspan. But its construction lagged, and it was not completed until after the war ended either. Although Hap’s “high priority” could not cut through the military bureaucracy of his time, 1947 would see the Nation Defense Act establish an autonomous Air Force…a dream for which he had worked. The B-35 Flying Wing would become the prototype for the B-2 Stealth bomber built in 1989. And the B-36 was used extensively by US Strategic Air Command until 1959, but the B-36 Peacemaker never dropped a bomb.
So much has changed in the area of aviation over the years. I’m quite sure that the Wright brothers would be amazed. One thing that hasn’t changed since those first airplanes, however, is our interest, or in some cases obsession with flight. Many places around the country have displays of actual planes that are low enough to the ground to get you up close and most of these are displayed right beside entrances to memorials or other sights that are about flight. Planes, perched on a pole, give us the ability to stop and take pictures that we can use as a memory of our visit to the site.
Bob and I have made several of these stops to get pictures with an airplane of one type or another, and now looking back, I see that my parents and grandparents liked to do the same thing. There is just something about flight…the feeling of freedom, that draws us to it, but what really fascinates me is the changes in the planes over the years. If the Wright brothers were here, and a helicopter or a Harrier Jet took off, I’m sure they would stand there staring with their mouth wide open. The speed it took just to get their plane in the air for a few minutes compared to the lack of speed to get these in the air would be shocking.
When you compare the fighter planes of the past to those of today…well, just imagine if America had today’s planes in World War II. The war would have been over after one battle. No other nation would have been able to hold us off. The passage of time has brought new technology to the levels of being very dangerous in the wrong hands. I suppose it is a good thing that it came about slowly, so we could adjust our way of thinking. Still, craziness knows no generation, and there are always those who would start a war. And just a side note, be sure to take a good look at the cars in the first and last picture. Much has changed in the auto industry too…but, that is another story.